Other Features: Teaching and Learning Moments
As an aspiring medical student, I had anticipated gross anatomy as long as I could remember. I had been waiting for the course so long, in fact, that when I walked into the lab on the first day of class, it almost felt like déjà-vu. I distinctly remember surveying the room and comparing it to my dreams, making a point to remember exactly how those first moments were making me feel. The first thing I noticed was the exposed cadavers, and I felt shame for their nudity. The overwhelming sensations of attending my first day of gross anatomy and the sheer magnitude of having to cut into what was once a human being had finally became a reality, and it was making me dizzy. To prevent myself from blacking out, I focused my attention on my cadaver.
She didn’t look like a real person when I saw her for the first time. Her face was permanently distorted and her skin stiff like rubber. But the more I looked at her, the more I realized she used to be a real living person. She was human: The crinkles around her eyes from smiling often, and even remnants of her nail polish accentuated her existence as a person. Where she had been, whom she loved, and what her life aspirations were—I can only imagine. But the one thing of which I was cognizant and absolutely certain was that her life was meaningful. And, interestingly enough, even in her death she continues to pass on meaning—a special gift—the gift of her body to science.
One would typically admit that it is comforting that cadavers don’t look like real people. It makes the task of dissection slightly easier. But in my case, every time I visit and study the gift this lady has given me, I see a selfless woman who has somehow taught me more about how precious life is than studying from a textbook. In addition to teaching me about the amazing intricacies of how the body functions, I see a person who has taught me to respect life. And I see a person who is proud of how much I have gained through her gift, which is the reason that when I look at my cadaver I envision a unique individual smiling up at me.
Ms. Paff is a first-year medical student, Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.